On publishing

These are a few notes about publishing that I used in the workshop for (post)graduate students and early career researchers. They are based on my experience of editing journals, rather than necessarily my own experience as author. As ever they are not intended as absolute rules, but some things that I hope are useful. Some may appear obvious, but having seen something in the region of 700 papers through Society and Space as editor, plus other journal experiences, I can assure you that people do a whole lot of strange things…

I began with some comments about process – what happens after you submit to a journal? To a lot of people I think this is something of a black box – you send a paper in and then a few months down the line you get a decision. So, I talked about editorial pre-screening (not everything goes to review); choosing referees; trying to get reports; editorial discussion; communication with author; revision and possible re-review; moving to dealing with the publisher.

A few key things here

  • Do not submit the same paper to more than one journal at once
  • Check the journal out in detail before you submit. We get a strange number of submissions from people who appear never to have opened the journal.
  • All journals have format and style requirements. Use them. Make it at least look like you have written this piece for this journal.
  • Take care with presentation of the paper. If it looks unpolished, there are spelling mistakes, etc. then it does not impress editors or – it gets that far – referees. Make sure references are complete; match the text etc. print the piece out and check that it looks ok. Get a friend or colleague to read it. It sounds simple, but it’s amazing how often pieces that look two redrafts away from being done are submitted.
  • Your work generates the need for reviewers (probably three); you should be willing to review three times as many papers as you submit. Then do the report within the timeframe agreed. This doesn’t half help in terms of your relationship with editors
  • Do not simply send a rejected paper straight to another journal. You should of course be able to send it somewhere, but work on it first. Journal editors often end up asking referees from the previous journal (quite by chance).
  • If you are asked to revise the paper and resubmit it, or it is conditionally accepted subject to revisions, spend time on a detailed cover letter/note on revisions. It helps you in making sure you have worked through everything you have been asked to do, or provided detaile reasons for what you have not done; and it helps the editor in that they can clearly see what you have done.

So, why have you send the paper to this journal? That your head of department or research cluster leader told you that you really should be submitting work to journal X, is clearly a start, but not in itself sufficient! It should fit the journal’s scope, and possibly engage with debates that have taken place there. A good guide for where to submit is where you are reading and referencing work. This is not a hard and fast rule, but worth some thought.

If a general journal, does the paper speak beyond its specific focus? We get a lot of very specific case studies that don’t work for us. If a specific journal, does it fit?

The Bad News

1. You will get referee reports you don’t like; you will be asked to make changes you don’t want; you will be rejected.

2. Most journals get far more submissions than they can publish. They can only publish a fraction of submissions.

The Good News

1. The first bit of bad news happens to everyone.

2. Journal editors want good material for their journal. Despite the number of submissions we still don’t get enough really good material. Most journal editors are really looking for better papers – they want to publish good work. If you produce good work, it will be published.

Some Key Points in Conclusion

  1. Good work gets published.
  2. There is no right or wrong way to work – often quirky papers are more appealing to editors than formulaic ones.
  3. Make it hard for a referee to dismiss your paper. A paper that is well presented, clearly competent, engaging and carefully referenced is going to get a fairer evaluation than one that isn’t one or more of these things.
  4. A paper must be finished before submitting it to a journal; but you equally have to accept that it is going to need revision, and therefore is not finished.
  5. When you are asked to make revisions, do them. There are lots of people with ‘orphaned papers’ – ones that were written, submitted, revisions were needed, but they were never done. It can be difficult to return to a paper you let go of several months ago, but it needs to be done.
  6. Get back up from the floor when you have a rough decision or critical reports. It really does happen to everyone.
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6 Responses to On publishing

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  2. Thanks Stuart, that is all very helpful for someone like me (soon to be post-graduate — again).

    If I may ask, would you have any advice for postgraduates specifically? I am thinking particularly of, as a keen student looking to get an early publication, choosing a journal that will accept papers from postgrads (MA/MSc/MPhil/PhD). I have been told in the past that some will refuse to do so or will only accept such papers if they are exceptionally good (i.e. better than the usual standard) or if they are part of a student essay competition (e.g. the F.S. Northedge competition in Millennium: Journal of IR).

    • stuartelden says:

      Well the session was aimed at postgraduates/early career, so what I say is, I think, generally applicable. At Society and Space we make no discrimination – if a paper is good enough to review, it goes to review, and then review is conducted entirely blind. Sometimes referees assume they can work out the author and their career stage, but they are often wrong. Obviously I can’t speak more generally, but my experience is that career stage is not a factor in acceptance or rejection. Of course, as we go through our careers we (should) get a bit more aware of what to do/what to avoid. But the idea that a journal would refuse outright or ask for a higher standard seems self-defeating to me: we want good work so why would we turn it away?
      That said, if you perceive a risk, it’s perhaps even more important to ensure you follow author guidelines, etc. That might be strictly policed by editors.

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